Hughes and Blues Essay



The Influence of Musical Folk Traditions in the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén
by Kathryn Gray (an excerpt from a Yale New Haven Teachers Institute curriculum unit)



SECTION FOUR: The Blues Poetry of Langston Hughes

It is suggested that the blues emerged in the United States after slavery had been abolished, when African-Americans finally had a chance at individualism and self expression while struggling with being educationally and economically unprepared for freedom in an oppressive society. Though no one can pinpoint when the first blues songs were sung, we do know that it was in the 1890’s that they were first collected and printed. Edison’s first phonograph records came out in 1877, but it was not until 1920 that the blues were recorded for commercial sale. These recordings were immediate successes and became part of the fuel that got the Harlem Renaissance swinging.

From its roots in the rural South, the blues moved to the city and took Langston Hughes right with it. He remembers hearing the blues performed for the first time when he was about six years old in Kansas City with his grandmother. Besides having both a love of this music and the common black folk it was created by and for, one of the reasons that Hughes began to draw on the blues tradition for writing his poetry is that he hoped to capitalize on the blues craze. Though the markets for music and poetry were quite different, he thought he could somehow merge the two.

Another reason for employing blues music in his poetry is because the “New Poetry” movement that was going on at the time shared philosophical similarities with the Harlem Renaissance poets and a group of poets called the Imagists which included Ezra Pound and F.S. Flint. The “New Poetry” movement sought to humanize poetry by using fresher and more original language, while the Imagists in particular “sought to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not the metronome” (Tracy 219). Hence, Langston Hughes had been influenced by this movement that included music in its writing format. Additionally, Vachel Lindsay, a poet of the Chicago Renaissance, was very important in setting a poetic precedent for Hughes. He used music and dramatic performance to revive poetry within a Chicago movement that drew from Walt Whitman, a poet who sought to unshackle poetry from the iambic pentameter and who showed an interest in the common man in his poetry. The times were ripe for him to use the blues.

Langston Hughes employed the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues that he heard in the country, the city, the field, the alley and the stage. When he used the musical and stanzaic structures of the blues to write his poetry he most often relied on the twelve-bar blues which is the predominant structure, though there are others that predate, coexist with, or derive from it. These are often called blues in the classic form and about half of his blues poems fit this structure. The twelve-bar blues is a musical composition with these basic and variable characteristics:

1.  4/4 time with 4 beats to the measure.

2. 12 measures or bars of 4 beats each which lasts for 48 beats.

3. A specific chord structure in the key of C that uses the 3 chords C, F, and G performed in a particular sequence.

4. A stanzaic pattern that could include any of the following thought patterns, with each of three thoughts lasting roughly 16 beats or 4 bars:

a. One thought or line repeated three times (AAA).

b. One thought or line sung once followed by another sung twice (ABB).

c. Two different thoughts or lines followed by a refrain (ABRefrain)

d. One thought or line sung twice with a third line resolving the thought of the first two lines (AAB). This final one is the most popular stanzaic form in the recorded blues (Tracy 224).

Though Langston Hughes most often employs this last pattern, he divided each of the three lines in half to make a six line stanza. By doing this he was aiming at two things, first, to bring out more of the oral performance on the written page and second, he found that when he sold his first poem that the magazine paid him per line. More lines, more money for a struggling artist. You can clearly see this structure in “Gal’s Crying for a Dying Lover” and “Yon Gal’s Blues,” and “Love Again Blues.” He also used the eight-bar blues and the pattern variations created by the Vaudeville composers who “polished up” the blues to make them more interesting for the stage. “The Weary Blues” in a famous poem in which both the classic and other verse forms are used.

W.C. Handy was the key Vaudeville composer and he is credited for having “legitimized” the blues by making it more palatable for a middle class audience. In fact, there is really no other poet of the time that significantly uses the blues the way Langston Hughes did precisely because it was not thought well of in the literary community. Black intellectuals felt that spirituals were the true black folk musical tradition. The brashness of blues, the secular form of folk music, portrayed what was wrong with African-American life. It contained offensive lyrics, off-color jokes and lewd gestures clearly not fitting for polite company. Hughes saw the blues in another way. He said they were “sad funny songs—too sad to be funny and too funny to be sad . . . containing all the laughter and pain hunger and heartache, search and reality of the contemporary scene” (qtd. in “Songs Called the Blues” The Langston Hughes Reader 159-161).

Though some of the language and images employed in the raw blues are worse than R-rated, Langston Hughes, like W.C. Handy, did not choose to shock the public by using the blues, rather he wanted to sell his poetry to a wide audience, black, white, unsophisticated, worldly. So while he used blues themes and language, he also made them accessible to everybody. Langston Hughes not only used the rhythms of the blues, but its folk idioms and themes. In 1927 he accompanied his close friend Zora Neale Hurston on travels through the South. She introduced him to rural folk artists while she collected and recorded their folklore. While Hurston was a folklorist, Hughes was more interested in using the folk material to inform his own literary artistry. He did this very well and in so doing, melded the oral and written traditions to bring poetry to the common folk.

  1. The following is a list of blues themes that Langston Hughes employs and the blues poems in which they appear:
    Suicide as a theme is contemplated but never attempted in the blues and it is usually mentioned with a river in mind. The poems that include this theme are: “A Ruined Gal,” “Lament Over Love,” “Reverie on Harlem River,” “Life is Fine,” “Lonesome Place,” and “Too Blue.” Superstition comes up as a theme in “Bad Luck Card,” “Blues on a Box,” “Gal’s Cry For a Dying Lover,” and “Bound No’th Blues.”
  2. The train is an important image and it is usually taking a lover away, bringing a lover back, going back home, or escaping oppression. Train poems would be “Blues Fantasy” and “Dream Boogie: Variation.”
  3. Like in the Négritude movement as a whole, the theme of stratification by skin color is important in the blues. Here the stratification is based on a middle-class conception of lighter skin being more desirable because it is closer to white. Hughes’s poems that deal with this theme are: “Misery,” “Gypsy Man,” “Argument,” “The New Girl,” “Black Gal,” and “Gal’s Cry For A Dying Lover.”
  4. The contrast between the North and the South, as well as the harshness of city life is found in “Homesick Blues” and “Red Clay Blues.”
  5. Physical violence is popular in blues songs and other black folklore. There are bad men who harm other men and women usually because the devil has taken over their behavior. However, showing badness is also a way to keep away the blues. “In a Troubled Key” and “Stony Lonesome” reflect this violence.
  6. Alcohol is the bearer of either good or bad times in the blues. Fortunately, Hughes makes no reference to other drugs in his blues poems. Poems with references to alcohol are “Ma Man,” “Listen Here Blues,” and “Morning After.”

Though Hughes does not make many overt references to sex and never refers to homosexuality, sexuality is perhaps the most popular theme in the blues and is referred to using numerous nouns and verbs from pigmeat, hot dog, bananas and sugar to pressing someone’s button, fishing in somebody’s sea or becoming a biscuit roller among others.

He also relies on the blues tradition by borrowing established blues lines and filling in words that are more appropriate to is meaning. Some of these are: “I woke up this morning . . . ,” “Had a dream last night . . . ,” and “I went down to the river . . . ” About one fourth of Hughes blues poems have female speakers and deal mostly with the themes of love lost, mistreatment, revenge for mistreatment, or separation by death. A slightly greater percentage have a male speaker and deal with the themes of lack of jobs or food, being far from home with no way to get back, or lost love. The rest have no indicator of gender. Most of Hughes’s blues poetry can be found in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, Shakespeare in Harlem and One-Way Ticket.

1. When did Langston Hughes first hear blues performed?

2. Hughes included music into his format for writing poems. How did he acquire this concept?

3. How was Walt Whitman an influence to Hughes?

4. What is the most popular stanzaic form used in the recorded blues? Explain what it means in your own words.

5. How did WC Handy “legitimize” the blues?

6. What was often controversial about the content of blues music?

7. What does the author say about contrast in “Homesick Blues”? Don’t use her words, use your own to explain it.

8. What are some of the somewhat inappropriate content of blues songs and poems? Why is it a part of it?

9. What are some of Hughes’ most popular themes?

10. Search online for one of Hughes’ poems and identify some of the themes you read about in the essay. Explain what the theme is and how it could be considered a “blues poem”. Print the poem and come to class prepared to explain your answer.

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